A few years ago I bought Family Tree Maker and a subscription to Ancestry.com. I tracked my ancestors back to Europe (I am a descendent of the Merovingian kings – you should show some respect). The Millers come from Carbon County, Pennsylvania, but I couldn’t find when they emigrated from Germany. The Pratts, my mom’s side, settled in St. Louis in the mid-1800s. One branch of the family came over on the Mayflower and ended up in Piscataway, NJ. It was a fascinating study.
What I didn’t find in any of this was a slave owner. There were a couple of branches that lived in Virginia, so you never know, but I have no evidence that any of my ancestors ever owned a slave. No members of the KKK turned up, no blatant racists or white supremacists. My family tree doesn’t seem to give evidence of heinous racism.
On the other hand, racism is the most serious stain in America’s history. The US governmental system is genius; our constitution is a masterpiece. Our founding forefathers were blessed with wisdom and grace, but still this gaping ethical hole was left open. For the first century of America history is was okay to be a good American, a good Christian, and own a human being as a slave. For the next century and a quarter, after emancipation, it was still considered okay to oppress blacks, to “keep them in their place,” and brutalize them in many ways.
I would make the following assertions.
1) The treatment of blacks (and Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics and other ethnic groups) is the darkest stain on the American experience.
2) That despicable treatment was perpetrated by “Christian” white men, the founding forefathers of our nation. I might point out that many Christian white men also were part of the emancipation movement, but the stain of racism in America can be laid at the feet of white men who were, at the very least, nominally Christian.
3) I did not do it. I never owned a slave, promoted segregation, oppressed black people, sent Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, or brutalized anyone. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, none of my ancestors were part of the systemic dehumanization of other races. Did they turn a blind eye and fail to stand up as they should have? I would assume so.
But I am not personally responsible for the racism in America. I didn’t do it. I have preached against it. I’ve written against it. I’ve tried to build racial bridges where I could. It’s not my fault. Hook me up to a lie detector and I will assert that my four children have never heard me use the “n-word” except to explain it and say why it should not be used.
Or is it?
That is my question today.
Do I, as a white male American, bear the weight of the guilt of four centuries of slavery, oppression, brutalization and dehumanization afflicted by white Americans on other ethnic groups in my homeland?
- Does the slavery inflicted by my forebears lay at my feet?
- Do I bear guilt for the brutalization of the Native peoples?
- Do I need to apologize for Jim Crow? For the Three Fifths Compromise? For segregation?
Here are some perspectives on that issue. There are three biblical principles that seem to conflict on this, but if properly understood, they can help us sort this out.
1) Only the person who commits a sin is guilty before God.
The law spelled this out clearly. A man is responsible before God for his own sin and not for anyone else’s. I do not bear guilt for sins my dad committed, or my grandparents, or any of my ancestors.
Deuteronomy 24:16 lays the foundation.
Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.
In 2 Kings 14:6, King Amaziah’s righteous reign is detailed in this way.
2 Kings 14:6 But he did not put to death the children of the murderers, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. But each one shall die for his own sin.”
Ezekiel’s prophecy backed up the principle.
Ezekiel 18:20 The person who sins is the one who will die. A son won’t suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity, and a father won’t suffer punishment for the son’s iniquity. The righteousness of the righteous person will be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be on him.
Before God, I am only guilty for my own sins, not those of my ancestors. I do not bear guilt for slavery, for generations of discrimination and dehumanization. I didn’t do it; I won’t have to answer for it.
2) Corporate sin and guilt is biblical.
Those of you who read my writings much know I’m an “antinomist.” I believe the Bible often teaches two truths which seem to logically conflict, but are both true. This is such a case. While I do not bear the guilt and will not receive the punishment for the past sins of white America, the current generation of white Americans does bear some responsibility to repent of and correct the sins of the past.
In Nehemiah 1:6-7, Nehemiah confesses sins that took place long before he was even born. He confesses on behalf of both his nation and his forebears for the sin that left Israel in exile and the nation in ruins.
Nehemiah 1:6-7 Both I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted corruptly toward You and have not kept the commands, statutes, and ordinances You gave Your servant Moses.
This is not a unique scripture. It is not unusual for a prophet or king or some other Israelite leader to confess the sins of generations long gone.
I am an American, and so I bear some responsibility for American sins – those of today and those in the past. As a Baptist, I have responsibility concerning the racist past of Southern Baptists.
Note, please, that I use the term responsibility instead of guilt. That is intentional. I will not be punished for those sins nor do I have guilt before God over them, unless I have committed them myself. But I bear responsibility, I am accountable to do what I can to confess and correct those sins.
That is why I stood with Southern Baptists in 1995 to confess our corporate racism. I was confessing sins I did not commit. But I am part of an organization that was rife with racism. That sin needed to be confessed.
3) The sins of previous generations have consequences on the present.
I don’t believe is what is sometimes called generational curses, but I do believe in generational consequences. What one generation does leaves consequences in future generations.
Look at Exodus 20:3-6.
You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
This seems to be in direct contradiction to the teaching of Deuteronomy 24:16. But we are dealing with two things. Deuteronomy 24 is talking about guilt for sin, and punishment of that sin. I will not be punished for my father’s sins. But this passage is referring to consequences. I may not bear guilt for my ancestor’s sins, but I will experience the consequences of them. When parents sin, their children suffer.
Why is the black community in such distress today? Do you think that 400 years of brutalization might have had some effect? I’ve lived a life of comfort and joy. Is that all because of what a great guy I am, or does some of that root in the choices my parents made and the lives they lived?
Each of us is shaped by the lives of those who have gone before.
And if our forefathers have sinned, and created devastating consequences in the lives of others, we should seek to correct that.
I am of German ancestry on my father’s side. Let’s play pretend. A distant relative dies and leaves me his estate. I find that in that estate are several paintings known to have been looted from Jews before they were sent to one of the death camps. Am I guilty of that sin? No, I didn’t steal anything. But am I benefitting from that sin? I am if I keep the paintings! What should I do? Am I not responsible to attempt to correct the sin that my ancestors committed? Can I just keep the paintings and say, “I didn’t do it, it’s not my problem!”?
I am obligated morally to do what I can to correct the sins of my forefathers.
So, while I am not guilty of the sin of slavery or liable before God for the acts of brutality inflicted by my white American forbears, I am most certainly obligated today to do what I can to counteract the effects of that sin.
We will eternally debate exactly what that means, but at a minimum, it means I have to admit what has happened, confess what sin has taken place (as we did in 1995) and do what I can to improve the situation. I can befriend people of other races and empathize with them. Though I may not always agree with what they say, I ought to seek to understand them and their viewpoint. I should be kind and compassionate. I should guard every word to avoid giving offense.
We, white American Christians, were part of the problem for hundreds of years. Now, we need to dedicate ourselves to finding solutions. That is going to take more than looking at videos of rioting and saying, “Those people need to act better.” It’s going to take more than just condemning race-baiting leaders. It takes more than just saying, “It’s not my fault.” And we certainly can’t just sit back and tell ethnic groups, after centuries of mistreatment, “Isn’t it time to just get over it and move on.” We need to go the second, third, fourth and fifty-seventh mile to alleviate the consequences of our forebears’ sin.
The discussion of the last few days is evidence of just how messy this issue is. Offense is easily given and taken, even when it is not intended. Opinions are strong and passionately held. But we as Christians need more than anything to be gracious in our attitudes and gracious in our words.
I’m of no illusion that everyone will agree with my thesis here. But I think the Bible teaches that while we are not guilty of our ancestors’ sins, we do bear the responsibility to try to correct the consequences of those sins.